Consider the soft serve cone at McDonald’s: Its alabaster swirls evoke the pale walls of a vacant rental apartment. The soft serve does not melt, at least not for the first five minutes or so. This is by design. One can purchase the Vanilla Cone alongside a Quarter Pounder, consume the entire burger, and still be able to enjoy the frozen dairy product afterward without having to reckon with a three-napkin puddle dripping over the edge of a table.
But everything that provides the swirl’s remarkable structural integrity is also what makes it coat your tongue like a pat of caulk. It’s an overdose of cellulose gum, guar gum, and carrageenan.
America’s fast-food desserts straddle two very different categories: our country’s most horrific edible disasters and our most cherished culinary treasures. For every gem like the Orange Julius, a pulse-quickening emulsion of citrus and dairy, there is the Burger King Lucky Charms Shake (RIP), a Breaking Bad-like chemistry experiment gone wrong. There are the old nostalgic treats, like that McDonald’s soft serve, that don’t stand the test of time — and others, like the Taco Bell cinnamon twists, that do.
This is a ranking of those treats.
It’s not uncommon to drop by Dairy Queen for nothing but a Blizzard. But one of our goals in this inquiry — a thoughtful critique of the most ubiquitous quick-service desserts in the U.S. — is to determine the role desserts play within the larger meal. One of the most brilliant and insidious facets of fast food is how it integrates sweets into the “main course”: You don’t order your dessert in a separate transaction after dinner (no one wants to wait in line again). You order a Frosty or an Oreo Blast simultaneously with your chicken nuggets or fries, and you might even consume them together. One serves as the palate cleanser for the other.
To cut down the scope of this project, our to-do list did not include sweets that serve as “meal replacements,” like the treats found at Dunkin’ Donuts, Cinnabon, or Krispy Kreme. And after sampling more than 50 fast-food dessert items — many of them more than once — some overarching themes emerged:
- Almost all fast-food desserts contain quite a bit of salt in addition to the sugar: Salt tricks the brain into ignoring warnings against overeating fat, an interplay that’s part of what makes fast food so nefarious and so compelling.
- Overall, a cup or cone of soft serve is rarely bad in the way that pizza is rarely bad — at the very least, it satisfies a specific need.
- For a snack, a novel experience, or if dairy is simply off limits, consider a piece of fried dough, filled or not.
- Fast-food places don’t do cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, or traditional pies well, so steer clear.
Here’s our list of the best (and worst) fast-food desserts.
1. Wendy’s Vanilla AND Chocolate (aka “Black and White”) Frosty
First, there’s the practical aspect that makes the Frosty truly great: It’s a multi-use dessert. Regardless of the flavor, either the iconic chocolate or the stealthily excellent vanilla, the Frosty starts out as a conduit for fry or nugget dunking as the soft serve nearly spills over, then changes into a spoonable treat as it warms, and finally transforms into cool, drinkable dairy as one’s road trip enters its second hour.
But the Frosty proves its versatility in more ways than one. Either flavor would place it in contention for the country’s best quick-serve dessert. Put them together — by asking for a “black and white” version, it won’t be listed on the menu proper — and it’s no contest.
Wendy’s vanilla Frosty, devoid of any actual vanilla or vanilla flavoring, is a silky-smooth soft serve version of fior di latte, a milky, mozzarella-like cheese and a common gelato flavor. It’s a simple, sweet dairy that mimics the taste of fresh, chilled cream. The vanilla Frosty has no need for the illusory flavor of vanilla (or vanillin, its terrible facsimile), because it contains both non-fat milk (in dried form) and whey, a byproduct from cheesemaking that, on the tongue and in conjunction with sugar, heightens the perception of dairy flavor. It’s a trick so effective that pastry chef Christina Tosi regularly uses it in her confections at Milk Bar.
The addition of the chocolate Frosty, then, acts as a yin to the vanilla’s yang. This isn’t new-wave chocolate; it’s far from a study in single-origin beans or intoxicating fruitiness. But the cocoa rather acts as a foil, using its astringent tannins to reign in the sweet dairy. That marbled, white and tan cold cream is better than either flavor on its own. It’s truly the quintessential American fast-food dessert.
2. Taco Bell Cinnamon Twists
Taco Bell’s twists are one of America’s finest and most iconic fast-food desserts. Not so much a churro as they are a hot, deep-fried take on cheap breakfast cereal (they offer the same satisfying crunch), Taco Bell’s twists are rotini-shaped puffs of rice, corn, and flour dusted with cinnamon and sugar. There’s no melting or oozing or drippage, and though a far cry from the spice of real cinnamon, there’s just enough cinnamon flavor to give eaters a sense of spice.
As a bonus, they’re not too sweet and would be nice with a milky cup of coffee: They’re the fast-food equivalent of movie theater popcorn or ballpark peanuts, which is to say they can be consumed ad infinitum, with one hand, without thinking too much about them, and without overburdening your system.
3. Sonic Green Apple Ice Cream Slush | Sonic Fresh Banana Shake
Ryan Sutton: These desserts represent the two-sided nature of Sonic Drive-In, a purveyor of food so earnest one wouldn’t be surprised to find it at a sit-down diner, as well as a hawker of garbage that makes you wonder if the sugar lobby doesn’t fund this chain. And yet both sides are undeniably excellent.
The banana shake, for example, is one of the cleanest expressions of any fruit in a non-restaurant setting, a seamless blend of cool ice cream and tropical perfume. Serve this in a health-food store and it would outsell a smoothie. The green apple ice cream slush, in turn, conveys a quick hit of liquefied, verdant Jolly Rancher packed full of citric acid balance, followed by the mellowing calm of natural-ish soft serve. Serve this at a bar with vodka and it would be hailed as an improved appletini. They are both spectacular.
Daniela Galarza: Cosign the fervor for the banana shake: It tastes like the chain throws a whole fresh banana in a blender with a couple scoops of ice cream. (A staffer at the North Bergen, New Jersey, location confirms that each shake contains those two ingredients plus a splash of two-percent milk.) That — and the fact that the banana wasn’t overpowering and the shake tasted like it was sweetened with actual sugar instead of corn syrup — was a pleasant surprise. I don’t even really like banana, but would order this again. I don’t share Sutton’s nostalgia for artificial green apple, but I enjoyed the reminder of trading Jolly Ranchers in junior high.
4. Popeyes Hand Pies
These are what you wished a McDonald’s hand pie tasted like: crackly, with the burnished golden exterior of a gentle fry (and no freezer burn). Served warm, Popeyes’s pies taste like fried danishes and are, when cooked in fresh oil, fairly addictive; the fats and sugar help quell the palate after a battering of Popeyes’s distinctively salty-spicy chicken seasoning. Best of all was the limited-offering Raspberry N’Cream Cheese Pie, which smelled markedly of the fragrantly sour fruit. The Cinnamon Apple Pie — warm, and filled with coin-sized tart apple pieces — is not just an excellent dessert, it doubles as a near-perfect fast-food breakfast.
5. Dairy Queen Orange Julius Original
One of the country’s original smoothies, supposedly first served in 1926, the Julius is a frothy blend of orange juice concentrate, egg white powder, whey, sugar, vanilla, and ice: It’s a pioneering feat of beverage engineering: One has to respect the skill that went into developing a flavor that tastes like crushed-up whole oranges, unlike the facsimile of orange one gets in a Creamsicle. If a Creamsicle shake uses just a whiff of orange to add fragrance and tartness to ice cream, the Julius uses just a touch of dairy to tone down the acidity of orange juice. The beverage packs an intense aromatic tang and a fluid drinkability that makes it infinitely more food-friendly than a heavy shake.
6. Sonic Oreo Blast
The king of the fast-food Oreo concretes, this blend feels less dense and more natural than the factory-like McDonald’s version, with a flavor that more closely recalls Breyers’ cookies and cream. Sonic’s ice cream base looks almost exactly like the texture and color of Oreo’s creme filling, tricking the brain into believing you were eating frozen blended Oreo cream with bits of chocolate wafer. The cool cream is soft — it actually melts naturally-ish — and doesn’t leave a coating on the tongue. Speckles of cookie particulate are balanced with larger, more toothsome chunks. We finished the whole thing.
7. Shake Shack Malted Shake
DG: In general, I assumed Shake Shack’s sweet offerings would blow the competition out of the water. Unfortunately, after eating a spicy fried chicken sandwich (two thumbs up) and fries (RIP hand-cut fries) I couldn’t stomach a concrete or classic shake. There’s something about the malted, though, that eases the weight of the beast’s dairy fat. Maybe I’m just a sucker for that flavor after growing up with Malta, one of Latin America’s favorite drinks.
RS: Agree, the true star of Shake Shack’s ample dessert collection is the malted shake, which involves diluting down the frozen custard with milk, and adding a touch of malt, that gently pungent ingredient that recalls a Whopper. It drinks more quickly and easily than most fast-food shakes, which are essentially ice cream in a cup; this softer and looser mouthfeel is closer to a diner variety.
8. Chick-fil-A Icedream Cone
Without a doubt, Chick-fil-A’s “Icedream” is the best fast-food soft serve, a gently icy and exceedingly light product that’s the epitome of frozen dairy: clean, cooling, and milky, with an ethereal texture. To be fair, Chick-fil-A’s product, which never actually uses the words “soft serve” or “ice cream” in its description, is as packed with as many polysyllabic stabilizers and emulsifiers as at McDonald’s — it lasted more than 10 minutes in direct sun. Thing is, Chick-fil-A’s cone is simply better than McD’s.
And it’s the best fast-food soft serve not just because of its intrinsic deliciousness, but rather because it’s a perfect pairing with lunch: Since the dairy seems to have been cut with water, this is a cone that can easily be consumed after a fried chicken sandwich.
9. Domino’s Cinnamon Bread Twists
Not unlike a Cinnabon without the excess sugar glaze, these nuggets of fried dough were unevenly dipped in butter and cinnamon sugar — and when is that bad?
10. Domino’s Marbled Blondie Cookie and Brownie
Most of the desserts at pizza delivery spots are such afterthoughts that we almost didn’t even go there. But this brownie and blondie combination recalled Ghirardelli’s boxed brownie mix — which is pretty good! It’s chewy and chocolatey, and the blondie bits added some salty, butter-like flavor, for added interest.
11. Dairy Queen Funnel Cake
Not as soft or fluffy as a state fair cake — yet with sufficient powdery sugar to render useless whatever dark-colored garment you’re wearing — if this had been served hot and crisp, it would have made it into our top 10. Instead, it was served lukewarm, as though it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a few hours. But the best and biggest surprise was that though the cake had clearly been deep-fried, the pastry didn’t taste of rancid oil: Thanks for regularly changing your fryer oil, DQ. Overall, not bad.
12. Sonic Cinnabon Bites
RS: These are essentially Totino’s Pizza Rolls, but instead of being stuffed with pepperoni and mozz, the Cinnabon bites are filled with a gooey cinnamon paste. Pro tip: Squeeze out half of the paste, which packs a gently tannic sting, and use it for cinnamon toast the next morning. Eat the remainder, and discard the chalky tin of iced frosting.
DG: This was an extremely intense experience, but offered the best parts of a Cinnabon — the gooey interior — without all of the commitment. The temperature was perfect (hot), making these especially enjoyable on a cold day. On the other hand, just like a Cinnabon, they tasted a bit like a pile of hydrogenated fat.
1. The poorly branded desserts at Burger King
DG: Burger King’s desserts are all over the place. There are a half-dozen types of pie (one on rotation), each in its own triangular box; thick shakes that stand in for McFlurries; and sundaes. For the past few decades, the chain has relied on brand partnerships — with the likes of Lucky Charms, Twix, and Snickers — to boost the appeal of its otherwise forgettable dessert offerings.
If only Burger King leaned into those partnerships more, it might produce something that tastes less like stale candy. The Twix Pie is especially egregious in that there is no discernible difference in texture between the cookie crust, caramel filling, or cream topping. The Hershey’s Chocolate Pie reminded me of when, as a kid, I accidentally poured old chocolate syrup into milk that was past its prime.
RS: And it gets worse. A Snickers bar has long been used as the basis for pie, but Burger King might be the first societal institution to make the central ingredient unrecognizable as an indistinct mash of sugar over wet graham crackers. Lucky Charms, in its virgin state, is a perfect breakfast, a sublime mix of salty oat puffs and sweet marshmallows. Here, it’s transformed into an undrinkable cereal refuse that has none of the signature product’s delicate savoriness and gentle sweetness.
There are more desserts, all of them awful — including a vanilla shake with all the natural flavor of air freshener — but Burger King’s desecration of two of the world’s great brands is what makes its pastry program truly awful.
2. McDonald’s Vanilla Cone, Oreo McFlurry, Caramel Sundae
DG: There’s a bizarre waxiness to McDonald’s frozen desserts; the urge to brush my teeth and scrape off my tongue followed each taste of a sundae and soft serve. Is this a result of a broken soft serve machine?
RS: I’ll admit to having (publicly) enjoyed McDonald’s soft serve in years past, but a repeated sampling of the treat for this column made me reconsider things a bit. The soft serve suffers from an industrial sealant–texture that becomes even more pronounced when it starts to liquefy amid the heat of caramel, as in the Caramel Sundae. It’s akin to consuming a pool of glucose-laced margarine: Under no circumstances should anyone order one unless they want a toothache on the spot.
3. Popeyes Mardi Gras Cheesecake
This would tolerable enough if it were a plain fast-food cheesecake, a blend of cream cheese and sugar over a graham cracker crust. But Popeyes finds a way to abominate the classic by turning it into a rainbow food of sorts; the addition of red, green, and orange candy confetti ruins the cake with a ringing chemical tang (almost like grape Nerds, but worse). The cream cheese flavor itself isn’t bad, but the whole thing is the same, pasty texture. This tastes like Mardi Gras threw up on an average slice of cheesecake.
4. Sonic Ocean Water
RS: “Despite its name, it tastes nothing like the ocean. Which is probably a good thing,” says the Sonic website. This is not a good thing. The true ocean tastes of brine and life. Sonic’s Ocean Water tastes of chemical asphyxiation and saccharine death. It is mainlining a coconut-scented lava lamp.
DG: I refused to taste this.
5. Taco Bell Caramel Apple Empanada
It’s as if the corporate test kitchen at Taco Bell melted down a crate of artificial vanilla apple candles from a going-out-of-business children’s birthday party supplier and used the resulting liquid to fill the inside of corporate Tex-Mex pastries. It is nearly impossible to detect even the texture of apples, never mind their true taste. Thank you for trying to replicate McDonald’s fried apple pie, Taco Bell, but where are the apples and what is this goo?
Okay, and what about the two most iconic items at McDonald’s?
Despite its status as America’s most emblematic fast-food chain, two of McDonald’s most familiar desserts ranked toward the middle of the pack. But since we know you’re curious:
McDonald’s McFlurry: The color is speckled. The texture is pasty, cool, yet not too sweet. It is the frozen dairy approximation of an Oreo filling, which is to say a bit sugary, and without necessarily tasting like actual dairy. It remains one of the least worst things anyone can order at McDonald’s, which is an accomplishment worthy of some recognition.
McDonald’s Apple Pie: Baked, not fried, which means by nature it is inferior to the Popeyes hand pies. Nonetheless it’s almost guaranteed to bring up nostalgic memories, and really, it’s fine. The apple flavor is distinct, thanks to non-nuclear cooking that doesn’t pummel the apples, and thanks to a hint of dehydrated apples for extra oomph. A gentle cinnamon flavor lingers on the palate, and the crust doesn’t so much flake as it simply exists as a bready, fruit-y product. Go forth and have an average day.